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House hearing looks at threats to religious freedom

June 23, 2016
Allana Haynes

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, said June 16 that “religious liberty is called America’s ‘first freedom.’”

“(Religious liberty) is the right to believe, or not to believe, and to practice one’s religion according to the dictates of one’s own conscience,” said Smith, who convened a hearing on Capitol Hill on global threats to religious freedom.

Smith, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, is chairman of its Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.

He was joined by panel of witnesses: David N. Saperstein, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom; Robert P. George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University; and M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.

Smith emphasized that religious liberty is not only an “American value,” but a “universal principle.”

“The right to religious freedom flows from the dignity of every human person and, as such, deserves to be protected everywhere and for everyone,” said Smith.

Despite the universal right to religious liberty, Smith said that it is not a right that is offered to all people.

“The world is experiencing a crisis of religious freedom that poses a direct challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East, Central and East Asia, Russia, China and sub-Saharan Africa,” said Smith.

He mentioned how countries around the world are “facing systematic violence and discrimination” by both the government and “non-state actors” such as Islamic State militants in the Middle East and Boko Haram in Africa.

“These non-state actors have created global instability through their murderous religious intolerance,” said Smith. “If the U.S. does not have a comprehensive strategy to deal with these groups – genocide, killings, beheadings and sexual violence targeting religious minorities will happen again and again.”

Smith proposed the idea that religious liberty is not only a “human rights concern,” but “a key component of our national security.”

Eighteen years ago, Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, making the protection of religious liberty a priority of U.S. foreign policy, said Smith.

Recently, Smith introduced the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, H.R. 1150, along with Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California. Wolf, for whom the bill was named, was the primary author of the original international freedom measure and a “tireless champion of the poor and persecuted,” said Smith.

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